A Different Kind of Paradise
The Florida Keys of yesterday are slowly becoming a sterilized version of themselves, reshaped by a new wave of real-estate growth and by a local government desperate to keep its economy afloat.
The first time I met him, Dennis was drunk and shot at me with a double barrel gun. He simply raised the gun and calmly aimed at me before shooting a round of double 0 in my direction. Dennis had thankfully always been a lousy shot.
Of course, I didn’t know this when I heard the blast and saw the lead pellets hitting the water a couple dozen feet ahead of me, so I started up the WaveRunner and went off without further ado, flying through the mangrove as fast as I could until I was well into the ocean.
When I came back to Boot Key a few weeks later, I made sure to buy a bottle of Bacardi Ocho before anything else. I put the amber bottle inside the PWC dry storage compartment and left Big Pine Key with the persistent feeling I was going after my own death.
Dennis was sober this time. Or at least, sober enough not to shoot me on sight. We talked about his life. We talked about love and family. About war and loss. When we were done talking, there was no rum left and we were both so drunk that none of us could resolve to move much, rather nodding off in our respective armchairs until the sun woke us up the next morning.
A year went by until I went back to Boot Key. Dennis wasn’t there when I showed up and things had changed a lot since the night we drank that Bacardi bottle. I left a note on his kitchen table to signal him I was there and went back to my motel to sleep.
Marathon is a city of 10,000 standing roughly in the middle of the Keys archipelago, about 100 miles south of Miami between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Tourism is the main industry in the Keys, representing $1,6 billion in transactions in 2014, and attracting more than 4 million overnight visitors each year. The central location of Marathon makes for a perfect spot for snowbirds and families wanting to discover the region.
Motels and resorts follow each other in a continuous string of NO VACANCY signs, RVs and boat trailers slowing down the traffic on the road leading to Key West, at the southernmost point of Monroe County. Seafood restaurants straddle the Overseas Highway, serving lobsters, fried fish and fancy cocktails to a nonstop flow of visitors. A tiki bar stands against the 7-Mile Bridge, looking over turquoise waters and picturesque twilights. Dolphins can be seen swimming alongside white sand beaches. Palm trees bow under the wind.
Like the rest of Florida, Marathon was hit hard by the 2007 real-estate crash. Multi-million dollar mansions selling for as low as $150,000 in foreclosures wasn’t unheard of, and entire families had to relocate to the mainland where life was cheaper and jobs easier to find. 2012 announced the start of a slow market recovery that steadily drove the median home value to its current figure of $400,000 — the price to pay for staying in paradise.
But Marathon isn’t just a haven for the well-off.
In the shallow waters of Boot Key Harbor, encased between the town’s main island and Boot Key’s lush greenery, survives a secretive and gritty reminder of the real world, a relic of what the Keys used to be a long time ago, an enduring piece of Americana blending old and new together in an oddly familiar collection.
A marina provides dockage, gas and food to cruisers coming from all over the coast. Fishing lines are set in the waterfront. Older men cook their catch while kids wave at passing dinghies. A decaying building stands at the end of deserted docks, rose paint flaking and steel roof rusting in the salty air since the last hurricane. Further up, a decommissioned drawbridge spans over the inlet, cut in two sections to let sailboats access the channel’s anchorage field and its 226 mooring balls. Protected by sandbars and branches of the Sombrero Reef, the place is a favorite among boaters, making for a reputed safe spot to drop an anchor when storms roll over the Gulf.
And yet, unbeknownst to many, the western part of the harbor is also home to homeless and vagrants living in derelict boats left to rot at sea.
Watery encampments are common in Southern Florida — and even more so in the Keys. Squatters routinely sleep in decrepit vessels bought to bankrupt owners for a few hundred dollars, taking advantage of mooring laws to freely stay berthed for years at a time, sometimes pumping waste directly into the water and invariably becoming the target of city officials anxious to carry an immaculate image to the throngs of spring breakers, yuppies and retired travelers bringing their cash to the local communities. One of the most decried of these encampments, dubbed Waterworld by its residents, could be found near Dinner Key, in Miami, and was notorious for its high criminality. Drug deals, stabbings and even murders were to be deplored each year until law enforcement took action, effectively evicting the homeless and making space for traveling sailers.
Monroe County’s recent tightening of anchoring rules has proven only mildly effective as abandoned ships are still floating all around Marathon and Stock Island, unable to move under their own power and at constant risk of sinking. Often lingering in less busy parts of the waterways, they make for bizarre sightings, highly contrasting with the surrounding landscapes, mounds of barnacles on their bottoms, topsides destroyed by successive hurricanes and laundry hanging from their riggings.
The people living in those boats all have something in common. They’ve found their own paradise there.
Dennis was one of them before he moved to the damp grounds of Boot Key, leaving his dilapidated 26-footer behind to a couple of gray-haired hippies from Rapid City.
“I ain’t talking to no strangers,” says Dennis from his wooden deck, a small mutt furiously barking at his side.
I’m standing at cable’s length from him, ready to bolt at the first sight of a gun, my WaveRunner slowly drifting across the canal. I remind him of the Bacardi bottle. I tell him about things he told me when we spoke together a few years back.
“I’m not a stranger,” I say. “You already tried to shoot me before.”
Dennis looks at me a little confused, a smile gradually widening on his face beaten by the sun and the time.
“Well you must have pissed me off good, then,” he replies, now recognizing me and laughing raucously.
I let the jet ski reach the pillars and tie it up roughly, helped by Dennis still chuckling from the memory of having nearly killed me.
“It’s been a while,” he says. “Now that’s a damn shame because I just finished cleaning the yard. Knowing you’d come I’d have waited for you.”
“The place has changed,” I let go as we walk to a shack surrounded by boat parts and crab traps.
The AM antenna still rises from the ground near the vacant WFFG radio studio — One station for all the Keys! — originally built in 1958 by two Kentucky vacationers who expressly brought telephone and electrical service to the island. Today owned by a businessman named Joe Nascone, the station is now part of the Keys Radio Group and continues its operations from Marathon, relying on the Boot Key transmitter to broadcast Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly to listeners, the radio waves frequently giving headaches to Dennis.
“They ended up closing the bridge after all,” he declares, sitting on the same dirty armchair he already sat in the first time I met him. “Three million, they paid the radio guy. It was either that or repairing the bridge, and let me tell you, repairing the bridge was out of the question. Too expensive. That’s why they accepted the settlement in court and paid him three million for this piece of shit hut!”
“So you’re all by yourself, now.”
“Not exactly. I have company over there, and there, and there too,” Dennis replies, showing me makeshift shelters scattered along the canal. “People, they come and go. Not me. I’m good here.”
“I learned the city wanted to make a nature preserve of the island.”
“They ain’t there yet,” Dennis simply says.
It feels strange thinking that this place could one day become protected land. The Boot Key drawbridge was the only access to the island and its removal indulged squatters to swarm in, erecting a shantytown worthy of a third-world country. Stray cats wander between dead cars and boat carcasses, sleeping in rusted trailers and hunting rodents along crumbling fences. The ground is littered by small metal pieces.
“The sub is still here,” I note, motioning at the yellow submarine hung to an old crane behind us. The craft is the project of local resident Duane Shelton and has been in restoration for 18 years with the hope to one day see it operate educational tours in Honduras.
“Duane doesn’t come here much since they closed the bridge. He ain’t getting younger. You want a beer?” Dennis asks.
I gladly accept and we start drinking in silence.
“I was thinking, maybe I should go,” he says.
“I don’t know yet. I have this boat I’m working on, it’s almost ready. Could use it right now if I wanted. Want to see it?”
I nod and we’re off to the old road, at the northern end of the canal. Dennis shows me a dry-docked Pro-Line 251 walkaround and invites me to hop in.
“I’ll put an outboard 250 HP Evinrude at the stern when I’m done with the rebuild. I’ve already installed a heater and a new stove inside. Found everything in scrap yards and dumps.”
We talk a moment about the ocean. The freedom it gives. The loneliness that comes with it.
“You can’t be free without being lonely. It goes together. No way around it,” says Dennis pensively.
Dennis is a rare kind of man. Born in Pennsylvania, he went to Vietnam twice in 1971 and 1973 and returned like many others to find himself estranged from his family — a mother diagnosed with dementia, a younger brother with a tendency to assault underaged girls, and distant uncles and cousins he never really got to know well. After a few years unemployed, he decided to head south to Florida where he worked petty jobs, eventually moving in Marathon harbor in an abandoned boat.
Alcohol is a part of him, he likes to say. It helps him function better. For him, the Keys are simultaneously the best and the worst place to be.
“The best because of the climate and the views. The worst because of the climate and the views.”
Dennis is still familiar with a lot of the “boat people” mooring their decaying ships in the nearby marina. He considers them as survivors.
“They’re the last of an entire generation. I ain’t talking about the crackheads and the rich kids trying to play adventurers. I’m talking about the real ones, the hobos doing it since they’re fifteen. Great men and women, you can believe me. Free as goddamn birds.”
“Are they lonely too?” I ask.
“Even more now that the county tries everything to make them leave. Telling everyone they’re just a bunch of filthy-ass bums and druggies.”
I remember a conversation overheard the night before in a Vaca Key bar, where two men debated the right for the city to force derelict boats dwellers out of the harbor.
“Their [city officials] excuse is that year-round liveaboards pump their heads directly in the water instead of through the sewers. They say the water is clearer since they were banned from anchoring at certain spots. Dolphins and turtles are coming back. Now it’s true that you could see floating turds from time to time before in the bay. And the water was murky too. But this had nothing to do with boaters. What the county won’t say is that most of the pollution stopped when shoreside houses moved from septic tanks to the city sewer system. The water wasn’t filthy because a dozen guys left their Y valves open. It was filthy because of the run-offs from the golf course and because of the septic tanks chemicals drained in the waterways.”
We walk up the potholed road. Dennis shakes his head indignantly.
“Pollution in the Keys,” he says, “never came from anyone else than rich people wanting to grow lawns for their goddamn waterfront condos. But rich people have politicians in their pockets, right? The county is broke so it’s in their best interest to keep the rich ones happy, right? It’s not about dolphins and turtles, it’s about money. Plain and ugly. You think rich people want to see broken-down boats when they take their breakfast on their million dollar rooftops? The hell they do! They paid for a view, you see, so they have the boats removed and tell the government it’s for the environment, because who doesn’t like dolphins and turtles? But the truth is no one gives a shit about the environment. They keep using fertilizers in golf courses and spill thousands of gallons of sewage in the water whenever nobody looks! And sure, a bunch of hobos is easier to deal with — let’s put this shit on them. One stone, two birds.”
“Is that why you think of leaving?” I inquire.
“Maybe. The Keys I know are gone. It’s all gone. We’re dying, here.”
We stay a moment at the end of what was once a street. The traffic markings are all faded and there is no sign of human presence left beside a long, straight and empty road leading to nowhere.
Barrelling at 50 mph on a small craft in the middle of the sea makes for an eerie feeling. The tides and the wind suddenly become meaningful things to figure out and respect. The excitement of speed makes place for an overwhelming fear of dying as the water reminds you of your complete insignificance. And yet you cannot help but laughing when spray lashes at your face and salt gives your mouth the briny taste of the ocean.
We pass under the 7-Mile Bridge near Pigeon Key and head toward Big Spanish Channel. The shores of Bahia Honda State Park quickly disappear behind us while we turn north, passing a couple of manatees and soon getting in sight of the Content Keys after 30 minutes spent bouncing on cresting waves.
I approach the main island and kill the engine, beaching the jet ski on the shoal. The water is warm and shallow and less than 3 feet deep. Fine sand strips spread away to the reef.
Over there, the water is a darker shade of blue. We’re standing right on the edge of a continental shelf drop-off that dives vertically to 2,000 feet underwater.
This is where the world ends.
“Won’t anyone come here today,” Dennis says. “The tarpons are ours. Keep an eye for sharks, though.”
I watch him prepare his rod and choose a spot suitable for angling.
“Hemingway used to fish marlin around.”
Dennis opens the tackle box at the rear of the WaveRunner and picks a live crab from it, inserting a hook into a corner of its carapace before throwing the line in the water, free-lining the bait, giving it a small pinch of lead from time to time.
An hour goes by in almost complete silence.
After his arrival from Pennsylvania in 1982, Dennis first worked as a mechanic for a Key West Chrysler dealer. The city was very different. Life was still affordable. Weirdness was still a local specialty. Dennis came across many occasions to settle in but never followed through. Staying at the same place or growing a family never struck him as a priority. He was once offered a deal on a small canalfront property, $77,000 for a two-bedroom house on stilts with a nice backyard and a deck, but passed on it because he didn’t want to leave his boat.
“It wasn’t much of a boat, more of a wreck, but I didn’t mind. It was my place. It was something I had.”
“Would you do it all over again if you could start over?” I ask.
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Back then, I used to moor off Man of War Harbor, on Frankfort Bank, and we’d make bonfires in Wisteria Island with other boaters. Now coast guards are flying helos there to make hobos scramble. The island has become a stash for stolen stuff. Cops are tasing bums off the beaches in Key West. You ain’t got a chance if you’re poor here nomore.”
Dennis has been arrested at least 20 times by Key West’s authorities in the last few years, mostly for public intoxication or for unlawful sale of coconuts in the parking lots of Hyatt or Best Western hotels. An arrest in the city automatically warrants a 30 days stay in the county jail at the estimated costof $80 per night. The math is simple. In total, about $50,000 worth of taxpayers money was spent because the police caught Dennis with open alcoholic beverage bottles in his hands.
Meanwhile, the cost of a night in the local emergency shelter tops at a mere 8$, but the facility’s limited capacity means only a small part of Key West’s homeless population can find help there.
The Conch Republic’s motto, One Human Family, is often boasted by travel agents and hotel managers. Yet all families have their black sheep — and vagrants are bad for business. This is probably why politics are said to tacitly allow use of violent methods for keeping them out of sight.
“There’s a beach north of Duval. ‘Bloodshed Beach,’ I call it. Always fights going on. The cops go there often, for drugs busts they say. Except they don’t care about the drugs. They just beat the shit out of people and leave, and nobody ever lifts a finger. One guy I knew, he was sleeping on South Beach one day and they beat him until he was unconscious, and then they threw him in jail and pretended he was resisting.”
KWPD’s wrongful use of force has been questioned by several news outlets in the wake of the Ferguson debacle. Police brutality was notably brought to the forefront with the case of Matthew Murphy, a young father tased into a coma after throwing a punch at another man, and having remained in a vegetative state ever since. Rumors of a cover-up are still going on today. More recently, accusations of perjury and destruction of evidences opened to a $900,000 settlement during a suit filed by the family of Charles Eimers, a man who died after having been tased without valid reason by the town police. The teasing of Ricky Cartwright for riding his bike through a stop sign hasn’t helped the city’s cause either, nor did the missing files, lackluster police reports and tampered informations journalists uncovered in the last weeks while investigating the case.
One thing seems clear, though: Key West’s cops love their tasers.
“There’s a program where social workers pick up bums in an RV to bring them elsewhere,” says Dennis. “They’re supposed to give them a ride to KOTS [the overnight shelter in Stock Island] but sometimes they just leave them anywhere there ain’t tourists. Cates [Craig Cates, Key West’s current mayor] is happy with this. He needs the place to stay clean. That’s why I went to Marathon after I was laid off from Chrysler. Promoters were already starting to expand.”
“They haven’t stopped since.”
“Sure haven’t. They need all the space they can get. Take Wisteria Island: they’ve been lobbying to develop it for forty years now and they don’t care of getting their hands dirty. They see the money and it gives them stars in the eyes.”
I think of Roger Bernstein, a developer pushing to acquire Wisteria Island, the last empty stretch of land in Key West. Bernstein was found having hired a convicted felon to spy on activists fighting against the island’s purchase by a private corporation. This didn’t stop him to keep sweet-talking potential buyers to get a leverage against the other parties.
“They keep building resorts everywhere they can. It’s all fake. The beaches, the islands. All man-made. Did you know Key West is America’s capital of staph infections? With all the shit they dump in the water, you can’t bathe in the sea without getting a bug. It’s like poetic justice. Like nature’s way to say ‘fuck you’ to all the money thrown around.”
We laugh in unison.
According to the latest report from Monroe County Homeless Services, the number of unsheltered persons dropped from over 2,000 in 2002 to 658 in 2013. More than 70% of them are living in the Lower Keys, be it in KOTS, the largest shelter there, or on the streets, mangroves or derelict boats surrounding the bay.
“These numbers don’t add up. They don’t count the people who come from the mainland and stay only for the winter. They don’t count the people who live in boats. They can’t count the people they can’t see.”
The fishing line suddenly straightens up, the rod bending under a heavy load as Dennis starts working the reel.
“A permit or a pompano!” he shouts.
The fish furiously jumps in and out of the water, splashing across the creek in flashes of silvery and yellow scales. We both realize how big it is as it gets closer, maybe 25 inches in length, twisting around the hook, fighting madly for long minutes until it’s pulled off the water, squirming in the air.
“Knock him out! Knock him out!” Dennis says to me, struggling with the fish in his arms and losing one of his gloves in the process.
“What? How?” I ask feverishly, looking for a stick or a shovel or a bat, anything to hit the damn animal with.
“The gun in the cooler!” Dennis yells. “Whack him with it!”
I fumble inside the cooler to find an old revolver I didn’t know we brought with us, running back to Dennis and waiting for the right moment to hit the fish in the head with the gun’s wooden grip, missing it the first time and finally knocking it out on a second try.
“Now that’s what I call a tough son of a bitch!” Dennis says joyfully while I wash away the fish goo dripping from my hands.
Boot Key is completely dark at night. My WaveRunner is floating on the canal, anchored near the rusting yellow submarine. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums are flying over a buzzing neon lamp. A diesel generator purrs behind me. A small fire burns at my feet, six people sitting in a semicircle around it and eating quietly.
Vehicles are stacked into strange structures in the nearby junkyard, a lot previously used by fisherman as dry storage. Raptors are soaring above us — peregrine falcons or ospreys, one of the many species migrating south every year and stopping by the 1,017 acres of tidal swamps surrounding us.
If the plans to convert the island as a nature reserve end up working, Marathon could become a first-class ecotourism destination, offering visitors an even wider choice of activities by adding Boot Key to a lineup comprised of the Dolphins Research Center, the Turtle Hospital, the Crane Point Hammock sanctuary, and Pigeon Key. The recreational value of a new ecological park would help meeting the increasing demand for kayaking and mangrove studies, and bring an extra source of revenue to a city in need of a refreshed image.
A conversion of Boot Key into a nature reserve would however mean the end of the small squatter community currently living there.
“I’ll be long gone by then,” says Dennis. “The priority is the funding for the wastewater treatment plan. Homeowners want their houses connected to the sewers. They want their taxes to pay. But maybe they’ll just crack down on liveaboards instead and I’ll have to flee to Cuba! Who knows?”
Neil Young’s Down by the River is playing in the background, the song’s guitar solo enticing a few heads to bob and a few eyes to close in delight, someone slightly snapping his fingers, someone else humming along until we all find ourselves clapping our hands.
Everyone here has a peculiar story.
Michael has been living here since he was 28. He won’t say where he’s from. He’s an heroin addict and has been tested positive for HIV. He takes great care of not getting too close to the others. I’m told he lost 40 pounds since January. His home is a container with cut-out windows. He keeps his boat right outside of it in case he’d have to leave in a rush.
Jean and Will are in their late fifties and spend their winters here, driving from North Carolina every November in their old Dodge van. Their dinghy is docked in Boot Key Harbor for when they need to get groceries from the Publix supermarket.
“The laws will change but we won’t. It’s cramped here so we’ll always get harassed, but this is our lifestyle. We make do,” Will declares. “We’ve been fortunate enough to meet good folks along the years. I’m thankful for that,” adds his wife. “Ain’t nothing going to change us.”
Crazy Pete lives in a houseboat in the marina. He says he was a contract killer at one point, although it’s unclear exactly when and for whom. He’s known to having ties with some influent people in Marathon and has been seen talking with at least two politic figures at various occasions. Crazy Pete is drunk and is falling asleep in his chair.
They all look like castaways.
They probably are.
The generator shuts down without warning and the mangrove goes back still with barely a sound coming from the trees. Dolphins are squeaking at the far end of the canal.
Dennis hands me another beer to rinse the permit fish we ate earlier. The fish was incredibly tasty and tender, cooked in a spicy marinade and grilled on an open-flame barbecue.
“Down for dessert?” he asks, handing me a plastic bag full of take-out boxes and plastic cutlery.
Many of the boxes are coming from Porky’s, Lazy Days or Burdines, three close-by restaurants rife with tourist patrons.
“You wouldn’t believe how many lime pies you find in the trash,” Dennis adds in a drunken slur. “You wouldn’t believe it. Here, try one.”
I choose a clean box and we both go finish eating at his house.
It’s late and the stars are shining bright in the black sky.
“You didn’t bring me a bottle of rum this time,” Dennis blurbs out. “I should have shot you for that.”
“You’ll shoot me next time,” I reply.
I’m tired but keep awake for a little while after Dennis goes to bed, watching the moon rise in the black ocean sky, the smell of salty water evoking childhood memories and bringing back thoughts of blissful times to my hazy mind. Then, I zip up the door’s insect net and lie down on a camp bed in the shack’s makeshift kitchen.
I imagine vacationers partying at the tiki bar, less than a mile away, reviewing photos of blue-green waters and wondering about relocating in the Keys. I can almost see their smiles, picturing dreamy days spent under shady palm trees, sipping frozen margaritas and enjoying guava pastelitos, days in paradise, they’d think, days in paradise, from the purple dawns to the golden dusks, from Tavernier to the Dry Tortugas, from the long solitary bridges to the luscious backcountry channels.
“This is our only life,” Dennis says enigmatically, snoring, just before I sink into sleep.